The end of the line for the Aurora?

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One of the iconic sights of Leningrad, and now St Petersburg, has been the cruiser Aurora, permanently moored in the centre of the city. A symbol of the Bolshevik revolution, she has survived several wars, mass tourism and drunken bankers. But will she survive a handover to the civilian authorities? Mikhail Loginov reports.

The Aurora has had adventures enough for a whole squadron.  Launched in 1900, she fell victim to friendly fire before firing a single shot at an enemy, and then was one of the very few fortunate ships to survive the crushing defeat of the Russian squadron at the battle of Tsushima in1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. One of Aurora’s commanders was killed during this battle, another was murdered by his crew and a third was shot on the orders of a military tribunal. The Aurora has endured being raised from the bottom of the sea and refits of her machinery and hull.  Recently she has been the venue for a scandalous banquet for the Russian elite and the object of a prank, when a pirate flag was run up her mast. But her main claim to fame, and the reason why she is still afloat, was the blank shot fired from her forecastle gun in October 1917 which signalled the birth of Soviet power.

Now, veterans of the Baltic Fleet fear that the cruiser's heroic life is coming to an end. The ship has not been manned by an active service crew since 2010; from 1 August 2012 it will cease to be part of the fleet and become a civil museum. The seamen are afraid that the ship will deteriorate beyond repair and may even sink.

The fortunate goddess of the dawn

At the end of the 19th century the Russian Naval Ministry decided to strengthen its fleet. Three armoured cruisers were built and Nikolai II ordained that they should be called after classical goddesses: Diana, Pallada and Aurora. Diana was in service for 25 years and was then sent for scrap; Pallada was sunk by the Japanese in 1904, then raised and re-equipped as a minelayer, but sunk yet again (this time for good) in 1924 during Japanese Fleet Air Arm exercises.

'Her main claim to fame, and the reason why she is still afloat, was the blank shot fired from her forecastle gun in October 1917 which signalled the birth of Soviet power.'

The Aurora’s fate was both more interesting and more fortunate than that of her sister ships. The first time she saw action was when Admiral Rozhdestvensky's squadron was moving from the Baltic Sea to the Far East.  During the Dogger Bank Incident – a confused attack on Russian ships by British fishing vessels – the Aurora was shelled and the ship's padre was killed.

Avrora

In Soviet times the Aurora was a place for solemn ceremonies. Young people took their Pioneer oath here and workers pledged increased labour productivity (photo: flickr.com: thisisbossi's photostream)

At the Battle of Tsushima the cruiser was fairly lucky. Despite some damage and the death of her commander, the Aurora – unlike most of Rozhdestvensky's ships – did not sink and was not captured by the Japanese. She managed to evade pursuit and sail to Manila, where she was interned by the Americans until the end of the war. On her way to Manila, the ship's surgeon carried out an x-ray on a sailor who had been wounded at sea - a historic first for medicine.

Between the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War the Aurora was a cadet training ship. During the war she took part in local operations, and in the autumn of 1916 she was moved for repairs to Petrograd, as St Petersburg had been renamed in 1914, its original name sounding rather too Germanic in the circumstances (in 1924 the city’s name was changed again, to Leningrad). In February 1917 Nikolai II was overthrown and her crew mutinied, killing the cruiser’s commander, Nikolsky, and some of the senior officers.

The repairs dragged on until the autumn of 1917. The Bolsheviks were preparing for armed revolt, and couldn’t have wished for anything better than an armour-plated cruiser with heavy artillery, that could sail up the Neva river to the Winter Palace, the headquarters of the Provisional Government. On the orders of the revolutionary Petrograd Soviet the cruiser did not sent back to sea, but remained inside the Neva basin. To avoid any interruption of communications within Petrograd, the Soviet did not allow the Provisional Government’s forces to open the bridges on the Neva, which flows through the centre of the city. The ship's radio station broadcast Lenin's call 'To the citizens of Russia!', his manifesto that signalled the start of the socialist revolution (the Aurora’s former wireless room is now a galley).

'During WW2, the cruiser was docked on the Gulf of Finland, becoming a target for Nazi planes and guns. Her commander, Sakov, ordered most of the crew ashore, and though he himself remained on board, he was accused of cowardice and shot on the orders of a military tribunal.'

The event for which the Aurora went down in history took place on the evening of 25th October 1917. A blank shot fired from one of her guns served as the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace.  Even Soviet historians never denied that fighting on the ground floors of the Palace had in fact started before the shot from the Aurora, and later it emerged that the officers had hidden the gunsight telescopes and the fuses for the shells, which is why any shots could only have been blank. But in any event the 'shot from the Aurora' became synonymous with the October Revolution, and the ship that fired it became as much of a relic as Lenin's mummified body.

Sailing under the red, the Andreyev and the black flag

After the revolution, the Aurora became a Baltic Fleet training ship and some of the Soviet Union's most outstanding admirals began their service on board. The ship's final long-distance voyages were to German and Scandinavian shores. During the Second World War, Aurora's guns were taken off the ship and used in the land defence of Leningrad. The cruiser itself was docked in the port of Oranienbaum, on the Gulf of Finland, becoming a target for Nazi planes and guns. Her commander, Sakov, ordered most of the crew ashore, and though he himself remained on board, he was accused of cowardice and shot on the orders of a military tribunal. The cruiser was holed more than 100 times and sank - with the Red Flag still on her mast.

Avrora MAnila

The Aurora photographed in Manila port showing damage resulting from  the Battle of Tsushima (photo: http://navsource.narod.ru)

After the war, Aurora was raised and repaired, becoming a museum ship, but retaining her status as First Ship of the Soviet, and later Russian, Fleet. She was crewed by conscripts and the ship was scrubbed like an admiral’s yacht.

Aurora has given excellent service as the symbol of the one major event in her history. Schoolchildren were received into the Young Pioneers on board, standing next to the gun which had fired at the Winter Palace. A visit to the Aurora was as essential a part of the programme for any delegation from a foreign communist party as a visit to Lenin's apartment in the Smolny Palace.

At the beginning of the 1980s the ship needed major repairs. The part of the hull below the waterline was cut off and sunk in the Gulf of Finland; the boilers were replaced with mockups. That was when the legend was born in the city that the ship had been rebuilt and anchored on a concrete base.

'Schoolchildren were received into the Young Pioneers on board, standing next to the gun which had fired at the Winter Palace.  A visit to the Aurora was as essential a part of the programme for any delegation from a foreign communist party as a visit to Lenin's apartment. '

When the communist regime collapsed in 1991, the museum lost its previous ideological orientation: now the shot fired in 1917 was only one episode in the ship's history. The Aurora was still one of the main sights of the city and there were always crowds of tourists on the embankment next to her mooring.

The beginning of the 21st century brought the cruiser yet more adventures. In June 2009, the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum concluded with a reception and buffet supper on board the ship. The guests included Presidential Envoy [to the Northwestern Region] Ilya Klebanov, the Minister for Economic Development Elvira Naibullina and the governor of the city, Valentina Matvienko. Part of the entertainment was provided by Shnur, the vocalist of the ‘Leningrad’ rock band and Russian pop’s most foul-mouthed singer. He was so drunk that at the end of his performance he stripped off and jumped naked into the Neva. The evening was paid for by the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, and public opinion in St Petersburg, and indeed throughout Russia, was highly critical of the carousing and naked dancing on board the historic vessel.

In October 2011 a pirate flag was run up the mast of the Aurora by anarchists from two obscure left wing organisations, 'The People's Share' and 'Food not Bombs’. The anarchists and their flag remained on the mast for about three hours before the sailors doused them with cold water and handed them over to the police.

An ideology-free bazaar

The architects of the October Revolution hoped to replace the free-market environment with a planned economy. Ironically enough, there has been a ‘free’ souvenir market next to the Aurora's permanent mooring since the 90s, with stalls selling models of both the cruiser itself and of other warships, from sailing vessels to aircraft carriers. And anyone who isn’t into boats can buy a metal toy soldier, or a plastic sword for a child. Also on sale are Naval forage caps, air force helmets, revolutionary 'budyonovki' [pointed helmets worn by the Red Army, ed] and the hats with ear flaps so beloved of Western tourists. Alongside Chinese plastic toys you can find tarnished Soviet badges, now objects of great rarity. Even pacifists will find something to buy: for them there are miniature copies of St Petersburg's most famous monuments, beer mugs and, of course, matryoshka dolls. 

The stallholders have no fear of their wares remaining unsold. Two or three tour buses are always to be found waiting near the ship, and plenty more tourists make their own way by car or on foot from the nearest metro station. For them the Aurora falls into the same category as the Winter Palace, the Russian Museum, the Bronze Horseman and the Summer Garden: essential viewing on a visit to St Petersburg.

Most visitors have to look at the ship from the embankment.  After the incident with the pirate flag there are no more individual tours of the ship, though it is possible to go onto the bridge between two sentries if you have booked in advance.

'In October 2011 a pirate flag was run up the mast of the Aurora by anarchists from two obscure left wing organisations. The anarchists and their flag remained on the mast for about three hours before the sailors doused them with cold water and handed them over to the police.'

On the day I was there a group of students from the Cadet College in Krasnodar were permitted on board the ship. Their teacher told me that the children were being taught patriotic Cossack values, and so the guide talked less about the cruiser's revolutionary past and more about sailors' lives at the beginning of the 20th century.

'What I really remember is that when the coal was being stoked in the boiler room furnaces the temperature there went up to 70° Celsius,' said 12-year old Alexander. 'And I also liked the armour-plating holed at Tsushima.'

After the guided tours, the children are given 10 minutes to buy souvenirs – a sailor’s cap with ‘Aurora’ embroidered on it or a sailor's striped vest, so they can feel like sailors on the legendary cruiser.

Lyudmila from Petrozavodsk has a stall at the market. She says that the best time for sales is in the summer or during school holidays. Working beside the Aurora is a great deal less comfortable than selling souvenirs at other places in the city because there is almost always a cold wind blowing on the embankment. But there are advantages too!  As a rule the tourists don't know that they can only go on board if they have booked an excursion in advance, so they buy a cap, a tee-shirt or a mug as a sort of consolation prize. Lyudmila has been working here for two years, but she has never been on board. 'Why would I want to?' she asks. 'I've heard that during Soviet times the ship was taken to pieces and rebuilt.'

'They want to destroy the Aurora'

Aleksey Chizhov, Captain of the 2nd Rank and Baltic Fleet veteran, is outraged by the fable that the original Aurora is no longer in existence. He knows the ship's history as well as the story of his own destroyer, which he commanded for 10 years.

Chizhov was furious about the pirate flag incident and the drunken banquet. But what angers him most is the order issued by the Minister of Defence on 1st December 2010, disbanding the cruiser's active service crew and transferring the ship to the Central Naval Museum. Now the ship is run by a detachment of a dozen sailors, instead of the full naval crew which used to guard and run the ship.

'The civilians will do for the ship,' say the veterans. ‘If the minister wanted to save money he should have cut generals’ pay and left the Aurora alone.'

'This is why the anarchists were able to run up the black flag,' says Chizhov. 'Now the ship has no defence against hooligans or drunken bankers. They’ve already been organising festivals in the Summer Garden, although it's a museum, so they'll be coming back to the Aurora for more champagne and oysters.'

Chizhov has other reasons for criticising the Minister of Defence. According to him, while the Aurora housed a naval crew, the ship was scrubbed and kept clean and its extremely complicated machinery kept in working order. The ship's hull below the waterline was also inspected regularly. A museum ship will hardly be kept in such tip-top condition and if the river washes mud under the bottom of the ship, it could become stuck and sink.

'The civilians will do for the ship,' say the veterans. ‘If the minister wanted to save money he should have cut generals’ pay and left the Aurora alone.'

Nikita Stepanenko calls himself a 'new communist.' He thinks the minister is acting on instructions from the Kremlin to destroy the Aurora as the symbol of the world's first socialist revolution.

'First they dishonoured the ship with drunken bankers dancing on it; now they have handed it over to a museum and are waiting for it to sink. Putin is more afraid of leftist ideas than of anything else and the Aurora is a living testament to those ideas. That's why our current government, who are agents of foreign capital, will never feel at ease as long as the Aurora is afloat.'

Communists were always strong on conspiracy theories. But it is clear that the adventures of the only armed cruiser to survive the battle of Tsushima are not yet over.

About the author

Mikhail Loginov is a journalist and novelist based in St Petersburg. He is the author of the recently published bestselling political thriller "Battle for Kremlin".